An American crime family struggles with changing times, a growing list of enemies, and succession.
OSCAR WINNERS for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Brando)
OSCAR NOMINEES for Best Director, 3 Best Supporting Actor (Pacino, Caan, Duvall), Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Sound
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There are works of art that take hold of our collective subconscious and become something greater, become a part of us; they are inviolate and on another plane – the Mona Lisa; the Eiffel Tower; Elvis Presley’s Sun recording sessions. To offer a critique is almost pointless. The Godfather is one such work. The Godfather is a great film, but there are other great films rendered with as much distinction that do not come close to its influence, its power or hold over us. What to say: I didn’t for one instant believe that Marlon Brando was married to Morgana King – so much for criticism.
The story begins in the 1940’s, New York, with a wedding. Don Vito Corleone (Brando) is giving away his daughter to Carlo in marriage. While the band plays and the sun shines the Don dispenses favors from the brooding darkness of his lair. It’s a Sicilian tradition that he cannot refuse a favor on his daughters wedding day. And so the line is long – one man wants a murder. The contrast between the occasion with its pomp and frivolity and the skullduggery of the backroom deals couldn’t be starker. Here is the bright persona and the murky shadow of society, side by side, in seeming harmony.
The Don is the aging head of a Mafia family. His youngest son, Michael (Pacino), has come to the wedding with his girlfriend Kaye (Diane Keaton). He’s not a part of the family business – has just returned from the service, a war hero. He entertains Kaye with lurid tales of the family business. She’s shocked but she doesn’t walk away and he reassures her it’s not him, he’s not a part of it.
This all changes when Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), a drug dealer, puts a hit on the Don. Vito lies clinging to life in a hospital and when Michael visits him he is alone and without body guards. Michael instinctively senses another hit and cajoles a nurse to help move him to a safer ward. He enlists a visiting baker to stand guard with him at the hospital entrance; together they bluff their way through the crisis – the hit men retreat, the police arrive. Michael accuses McCluskey, the police chief (Sterling Hayden), of being in on the plot with Sollozzo. McCluskey breaks Mike’s jaw.
In the days that follow Michael becomes irretrievably entwined with the family business – he assassinates Sollozzo and McCluskey. He flees to Italy until the heat dies down; loses touch with Kaye and discovers his roots. In the small village of Corleone he meets Apollonia; falls in love with and marries her. But this instinctual move to the dark side is not without cost. In America his brother Santino (Caan) is assassinated and when vengeance reaches out for Michael it misses him but catches Apollonia. He returns to America – to Kaye.
Kaye is the billboard bright version of America that 1950’s America would embrace. Michael woos her and convinces her that the family is going legitimate. They will sell all their interests in the East and move west to Las Vegas, Nevada -- buy a casino and settle down. Michael and Kaye marry and start a family. And indeed he makes a start toward legitimacy – makes an offer for a casino. But his father warns him how it will play out: how they will come after him. Once the Godfather dies and before he his interred his prediction comes true – a trusted lieutenant begins plotting with a rival family. But Michael has no intention of being outfoxed. With a violent coup de grace he settles all family business on a single day and becomes Godfather to his sister’s baby.
Word of the horror of her husbands’ actions reaches Kaye and she confronts him. He lies to her; and she, for her part, believes him – good and evil will live side by side as they always have, joined at the hip, at war with and relying on the other – one for strength, the other for spirit -- casting a blind eye to the faults and inconsistencies of a match made not in heaven.
Some of the finer character work you are likely to see is on display in this film – Richard Castellano as Clemenza; John Marley as Jack Woltz; Richard Conte as Barzini; Lenny Montana as Luca Brasi; Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera; Talia Shire as Connie; Hayden as McCluskey; Lettieri as Sollozzo; Simonetta Stefanelli as Apollonia – on and on. In a story that shifts antagonists as quickly as cartridges it is extraordinary our attention never lags – while the stars Brando, Pacino and Caan deliver up some of their finest work never once do we feel they have outpaced their supporting players.
There are three other stars that need mention – the cinematography of Gordon Willis and the magnificent score by Nino Rota – The Godfather wouldn’t be The Godfather without either of them. Willis paints a portrait worthy of Rembrandt and Rota’s music is plaintive, haunting, unforgettable. And of course Francis Ford Coppola directs – again, what to say: The Godfather is without exaggeration a masterpiece – but it has become more than that: it is a part of us.